How the collapse of the USSR looked from the inside
25 years ago the European Union didn't exist, and neither did China's economic powerhouse. The Berlin wall had just come down. Hillary Clinton was a little-known, mouthy First Lady of Arkansas. The media were gleefully predicting that Donald Trump would never recover after the bankruptcy of his Atlantic City flagship.
On the other side of the iron curtain Vladimir Putin dabbled in minor corruption working for the mayor of Saint Petersburg, which had just been renamed from Leningrad. The KGB meddled in other countries' affairs as usual, spreading "fake news" and helping leftist politicians win elections--without a whisper of objection from the West's mainstream media.
Then suddenly the USSR disappeared.
Political scientists have speculated endlessly on how and why that happened. I want to describe how it looked and felt from the viewpoint of a voiceless, powerless Soviet citizen trying to make sense of the universe.
By 1991 very few people feared or believed the Communists any longer, ridiculing their institutions and their lying media. A typical political joke at the time was about a man who always complained that Communists had run out of everything - food, toilet paper, consumer goods, and so on. So the KGB brought him to their office and tried to explain that the country was going through historic changes and we all needed to be patient. "You should be thankful this isn't the old days when you could be shot," the KGB officer said, pointing a finger to his head. To which the man responded, "Ah, so you've also run out of bullets."
Officially the Soviet Union was a model of international solidarity and brotherly love. Unofficially, it was a prison of nations. Any non-Russian nationalist sentiment was viewed as treason. By contrast, Russian nationalism was encouraged; it was a glue that held the country together, which effectively turned ethnic Russians into jailers. What started as a maximum-security prison, however, towards the end degraded into a low-security facility with crumbling perimeter fencing and drunken jailers who no longer wanted their jobs.
The first inmates to get away were the three Baltic states, but those had been known malcontents who always kept to themselves and their escape wasn't critical to the empire's survival. But when the second-most powerful republic--Ukraine--broke away, the compulsory "brotherly union" could no longer exist.
Secession from the USSR had been a matter of hypothetical speculation for months in all the Soviet states. However, after a failed communist coup d'état in Moscow on August 19, that idea was upgraded from hypothetical to absolutely urgent and necessary.
A few days later, on August 24, Gorbachev dissolved the Communist Party, eliminating the force that held the USSR together. On the same day, no longer bound to the Kremlin's masters, Ukrainian leadership declared independence from the USSR, pending a popular referendum in December. Other Soviet republics quickly followed suit.
On December 1 90% of Ukrainian voters (including me) chose independence. Opponents of the referendum had tried to scare us with the specter of Ukrainian nationalism, which they said was as bad as Nazism. But a 90% vote for exit in a country where only 70% were ethnic Ukrainians proved that people feared staying in the USSR more than they feared the "scary" nationalists. All they wanted was to live as a normal independent European nation.
But the real point of no return was crossed a week later, on December 8, when leaders of the three Slavic republics of the union - Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine - gathered behind Gorbachev's back at a mansion deep in the Belorussian woods and signed a declaration proclaiming that "the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics no longer exists as a subject of international law and a geopolitical reality."
The declaration, known as the Belavezha Accords, announced the formation of the Commonwealth of Independent States, or the C.I.S., and welcomed other formerly Soviet republics to join. Ukrainian president Leonid Kravchuk called it a model for the European Community, based on "horizontal relationships" as opposed to the "vertical relationship" with the central government in the form of a pyramid with Gorbachev at the top.
The new country looked exactly like the old one: the climate, the buildings, the language, the people and their problems. And yet something was different, something in the air, something that pioneers must feel in new territories: a chance to start a new life.
Imagine being born and living an entire life in a bomb shelter, seeing everything in the artificial light, breathing filtered air, and learning about the outside world only from military reports. My generation was luckier than others - we were still young, in our early thirties, when we stepped out of the bomb shelter and walked on our shaky legs into the forbidden sunshine. Some of us couldn't get our eyes off of the sun and went blind, proving that our elders were right - the sun was dangerous! But the rest of us didn't care. Unlike the bulbs of measured brightness, the sun was also equally bright and warm for everyone.
I grew up knowing there were things we shouldn't talk or think about. Life would have been easier if the list of forbidden things existed, similar to the List of Forbidden Rock Bands. But of course if such a list of forbidden things existed, we would by definition be forbidden to see it.
All we knew was that things on that list were always changing and so we had to be careful what we say and to whom, which taught us never to trust our own judgment. Instead, we were expected to check the Party newspapers for reliable updates on how to see the reality correctly on any day of the week. Once I entered the workforce, newspaper subscriptions became mandatory.
Our teachers--delivering the party line--taught us that individual liberty resulted in crime, violence and depravity. They told us the Communist Party was the only thing keeping us safe from chaos and certain death. Without guidance, people couldn't be trusted to make the right choices, which was why we needed a caring government.
"Everyone knew" that if the government stopped regulating society, the world would immediately end in a terrible bloodbath.
But at the same time our teachers told us that the Communist ideology was "historically optimistic." I remember thinking that a capitalist society that trusted people with their freedoms seemed far more historically optimistic than the bunch of misanthropic curmudgeons in the Kremlin who taught us to fear freedom and took everything away from us in exchange for a vague utopian promise.
We were taught to love our country for its beauty, mind, and soul - and so we did, while secretly hating it for its deformity, idiocy, and needless cruelty. We were the last of the Soviet breed.
Gorbachev resigned seventeen days later, by declaring the president's office extinct. On the following day the Council of Republics voted the Soviet Union (and itself) out of existence. It was December 26, 1991 - a date forever stamped on the USSR's official death certificate.
POSTSCRIPTI wish I could say "and everyone lived happily ever after," but that would be a lie.
The official breakup had gone so smoothly in part because the former Communist Party and government bosses were in a hurry to enjoy new opportunities offered by the independent economies within a quickly emerging private sector. The highly centralized Soviet system had been too bulky and riddled with nepotism and corruption, leaving those outside of Moscow fewer chances of advancement. The breakup gave the formerly disadvantaged bureaucrats a chance to be the rulers of their own corrupt domains.
My dreams to see Ukraine develop into a prosperous European country were dashed when I realized how thoroughly corrupted the society had become after decades of socialism. The way most people imagined capitalism was the ugly caricature painted for them by Communist propaganda. Instead of re-examining that wrong image, it was simply assumed that ugly was the new beautiful. So we ended up constructing a caricature of capitalism.
Our former Communist elites found this approach agreeable. In the absence of qualified experts, they were now in charge of transitioning to the market economy, which in their minds was indistinguishable from crony capitalism. Soon the former USSR had become a commonwealth of kleptocracies where billionaire thieves ruled over impoverished subjects, beset by high unemployment and hyperinflation. The only exception were the three Baltic states that had retained some memory of how life was before their 1939 annexation.
Vladimir Putin called the breakup of the Soviet Union "the greatest geopolitical tragedy of the 20th century." His idea to reassemble the USSR, albeit in a different format, is critical to the survival of the immense centralized kleptocracy he has crafted in Russia. His biggest fear is an emergence of a transparent, functioning government in any of the ex-Soviet states, which will make his loyal subjects wonder why Russia can't also be like that.
Putin's notion of "maintaining Russia's sphere of influence" most fittingly translates as "using bribes and threats to keep the neighboring corrupt regimes dependent on Russia's corruption, thus ensuring the continuation of his power."
For that very reason, when in 2014 Ukrainians revolted against their pro-Russian corrupt government, Putin punished them by annexing the Crimea and orchestrating a war in eastern Ukraine. His willingness to violate the Budapest accord (and thus suffer international sanctions) prove how critical for his power it is to keep his neighbors corrupt and dependent.
While the extent of Russia's meddling in American politics this year has been greatly exaggerated (for obvious reasons), such an interference isn't new and has existed since at least the 1930s. Imagine how much damage Russia's interference, multiplied tenfold, can do to a weaker neighboring country with a Russian-speaking majority and frail democratic traditions.
In 1994 I emigrated to America, hoping to raise a family in a country ruled by reason and common sense. But lately I've been noticing a shortage of these commodities in the U.S. as well. While the ratio of reasonable people in this country may still be greater than elsewhere in the world, the ignorant passion for Soviet-style politics is very alarming.
American media now publishes articles that read like Pravda's updates on this week's current truth. American entertainers and moviemakers are consistently pushing the politically correct party line. Social media giants are censoring articles if they don't like the political viewpoint. Indoctrination in American schools and colleges is worse than I saw in the Soviet Union. And finally, as in the old USSR, more people are beginning to resent the "progressive" establishment and mock the lying media.
I believe the increasing popularity of socialist ideas in the U.S. is mainly due to the decades-long Soviet meddling in American affairs, aimed at demoralizing the public and promoting the "correct" people and opinions in places where it mattered most. According to KGB defectors only about 15% of Soviet intelligence activities in the U.S. were actual espionage; the rest were what they call "influence operations."
The seeds sown have now blossomed, and today's left-wing radicals in the Democratic party owe Russia a large debt of gratitude for the size of their political base.
History is still being written. In this country, where a citizen's voice still means something, we are a part of this writing process. Trump's victory and the movement it started makes me feel "historically optimistic" again. This winter it is America's turn to be a blank page. It is up to us what will be written on it.